It takes a village…

As a requirement for my home organization, I sent back to Canada a ‘dispatch from the field’. I thought you might want to read along.

WordPress.com doesn’t support iframe plug-ins, so read the original version of this post with funky graphics on Adobe Spark here

Gandhi once said that the heart of India lies in its villages. Today, that heartbeat remains strong. Rural-urban migration within India continues to grow, yet the majority of development work focuses on hard to reach, marginalized, rural communities. My host organization, the Aga Khan Rural Support Program India (AKRSPI), was one of the first organizations in the world to pioneer development work with rural villages. This means that AKRSP India has a well-established relationship in hundreds and thousands of village blocks across the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. It was because of these relationships that I had the opportunity to spend time in the community of Wankaner, in the dusty, desert-like Saurashstra region of Central Gujarat.

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Receiving a welcoming tilaka from schoolgirls at Vighasiya.

As part of my AKFC International Youth Fellowship, I am a Gender Officer for AKRSPI. My primary reason for going to Wankaner was to conduct research with female students who had graduated from YUVA Junction – a youth skills training centre which teaches life-skills and work place knowledge, employing its graduates in respected office or retail jobs. YUVA Wankaner has one of the highest female enrollments across all YUVA centres. My excitement of ‘starting’ my work at YUVA was quickly met with logistical complications which everyone had somehow over-looked: a language barrier.

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Students told me their favourite part of YUVA is ‘life-skills’, often taught through games. Trainers even address sensitive topics in in a mixed-gender environment, which they believe is important in order to learn proper social interaction.

English is uncommon, and my broken Hindi wasn’t even of use, as locals are most comfortable speaking in Gujarati. Thankfully, I had to pleasure of meeting a community superstar: Prateeksha, a State Bank of India fellow on a 12 month education-based placement. After living 11 months in Wankaner and learning Gujarati, she selflessly became my official translator for interviews, community liaison, gracious host during overnight stays, and a friend. Anyone loosely affiliated with AKRSP will tell you it is crucial to spend time in a village. I absolutely agree: but if it wasn’t for Prateeksha’s help, I would have been lost. Prateeksha translated much more than the gender dynamics at YUVA – she translated a whole village!

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Kirin Masi, our village mother who always ensured we were well fed.

During my time living in Wankaner, I learned many contextual nuances about society in the region, and development work in general. Wankaner is not actually a village – it is a town of 50,000 people along a highway, surrounded by hundreds of ‘real’ small villages. AKRSPI has an impressive presence in these communities. There’s an on-site field office in Wankaner, village community workers, ‘para-workers’, as well as a YUVA centre, and many surrounding schools where village teachers, ‘balmitras’, are specially trained by AKRSPI. And these are only some examples! Needless to say, everyone on the street knows ‘Aga Khan’.

Wankaner is what Gujarat refers to as a ‘minority’ community, with a large number of Muslim residents. Interestingly, through my research with YUVA I learned that girls from minority communities were more open-minded. While a lot of girls didn’t know what the term ‘gender’ meant during my interviews, an equal amount of girls did, and had a lot to contribute. Nearly every girl I met had completed or was pursuing post-secondary studies. Slowly, cultural norms are changing. Girls in Saurashtra are now viewed as being able to ‘bring honour’ to a family by studying or working, something that was typically associated with only the male child.

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Conducting informal interviews in Wankaner. This graduate from YUVA now works at a cell-phone store while studying for her Master’s at a nearby college. She is the first woman ever to work in her family.

One example is Pooja. Pooja is a village teacher at Vaghasiya School who cares passionately about her students. Though she is from a very conservative village, her father insists that every girl in the family is educated and finishes high school – an uncommon belief in this area. Pooja is the youngest of five sisters and one brother, and is the only girl to have gone to university. She’s currently completing her Masters of Arts. By pursuing this advanced education, Pooja is a trail blazer for other girls in her community. In order to help introduce technology in her school, and hold an office job one day, Pooja is learning how to use a computer from Prateeksha in her free time. Computer Skills is one of the training courses offered at YUVA, as AKRSPI seeks to provide new forms of livelihood support in rapidly changing rural environments. The demand from young girls is especially high. Not only that, once YUVA graduates are employed they tend to hold jobs longer, and pursue post-secondary studies at a higher rate than their male colleagues.

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Pooja (third from the right) and the Zala family invited me over for lunch on my first stay.

Still, girls from rural areas like Pooja face difficulties finding jobs which are close enough to home. Moving alone to larger cities is usually disapproved by their families. These cultural perceptions overlap with practical concerns, such as safety while commuting. After collecting data from YUVA, my report will help provide more gender sensitive support systems for female participants. In the meantime, I look towards leaders in the field: the Wankaner office’s Area Manager is a woman, and the office recently hired a young woman as program staff in the education department. Embodying gender equality within AKRSPI as an organization is crucial. As rural development originated from a context of male-dominated agriculture, the steps towards gender empowerment and equity in rural development are few and far in-between. But in a place like Wankaner, it is clear that gender empowerment sends ripples throughout the whole village, one meal and smile at a time.

(ps. apologies for the cell-phone quality pictures)

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